Children as young as seven are sharing sexual pictures and messages over social media, research has revealed.
Most children who swap sexual content on phones, tablets or computers are aged 13 to 16 but a substantial minority are primary school pupils, according to a survey of more than 1,300 teachers.
The survey was conducted by teaching union NASUWT, and found that 63 percent of teachers were aware of 14-year-olds sexting, while a quarter of respondents said they were aware of 11-year-olds sexting.
Alarmingly, one in twenty of the teachers surveyed also said they were aware of children aged 7 to 9 engaging in such behaviour.
The study highlighted some of the underhand tactics being used by children to exploit their classmates.
In one instance, a 14-year-old girl tricked a boy by pretending she wanted to be his girlfriend before persuading him to take a photograph of his genitals and then sharing the picture.
Another involved a vulnerable girl befriended over social media by other children and encouraged to send them sexual images of herself via Snapchat, which shows messages momentarily before they disappear. One pupil saved a screenshot, however, and distributed the image around the school.
Teachers also said pupils filmed themselves performing solo sex acts, took pictures of their friends’ genitalia to share, or photographed other children on the lavatory.
Chris Keates, the union’s general secretary, said: “Online abuse has a devastating impact on teachers’ and pupils’ lives and yet no serious action is taken by government to ensure that schools are responding appropriately.”
The NSPCC said: “Many young people see this activity as part of everyday life, despite the severe risks involved. Apart from exposing them to bullying when images are shared, it could make children targets for sex offenders.”
Nicky Morgan, the education secretary, rejected calls from MPs last month for compulsory sex education, saying that most schools already made such provision. A Department for Education spokesman said: “We want to make sure young people are aware of the risks and dangers [of the internet]. That’s why schools should deliver high quality PSHE (personal, social, health and economic education), which is an important opportunity to teach young people about how to stay safe and avoid risks.”